Thursday, November 13, 2003


In 1986 there were 28,496 shopping centers in the
U.S., boasting 3.5 billion square feet of space. Today there are 46,438
malls and such with 5.8 billion square feet of space. . . The number of
malls is growing faster than the number of babies. . . American households
owe on average $8,940 on their credit cards, up 173% from 1992, when we had
an average outstanding balance of $3,275.

This is all part of a disturbing over-leveraging and over-capacity problem
we have in this country. For the past 20 years the mantra from Wall Street
has been that if an asset isn't leveraged, it's underutilized. In other
words, if you can borrow against something - a factory, a business, a cash
flow - why, by golly, you should. But what if you don't need the capital?
Heck, son, you always need capital. Use it to expand. Create new sports
teams, build new cookie factories, develop new shopping malls. And so what
do we end up with? We have the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and bags and bags of
Keebler cookies, and 22 shopping malls around Columbus. . .

-- Fortune, Andy Serwer

Remember that big NFL season kickoff show on the Mall back in September?
Here's a poem memorializing that ostentasteless event:

On the 2003 NFL Kickoff Festival, Washington, D.C.
(Co-sponsored by the Pentagon, Reebok, Coors, AOL and Pepsi)

The view's much better, since the protesters are gone
and Britney's singing (half-unzipped) on the Jumbotron
before thousands of uniformed personnel whose
Commander calls this a "celebration of American values."

Yes, it's a new season, and we're going for broke:
Patriots versus Redskins; Pepsi versus Coke.
And by now every citizen should know why we call
the Capital's most important public park the "Mall."

Remember the old joke?

"Here's a deep story:
There were three holes ... well, well, well..."

here's my poem for today:


The last word that passes through my lips is
An attempt at three eternal points… an ellipsis.
A Fan's Notes
By Fred Exley

There are enough comical novels about middle-aged fuckups (the humor a kind of pathos, and therefore unintentional) that it could be considered an important genre in a country that values material and social success as much as Americans do. Call it the anti-bildungsroman. I've read quite a few in this genre (but don't tell me I should start reading a bunch of self-help books to compensate).

The first examples I recall reading as a teen were Tropic of Capricorn (fits this genre more than Miller's masterpiece, Tropic of Cancer). Then it was the Beats. Not just On the Road and Junky, but others who from the fringe, like Kenneth Patchen's Journal of Albion Moonlight (a hallucinatory, dream-like rage against WW2 & mankind's insanity and hatred in general), Mark Vonnegut's The Eden Express (an astonishing depiction of schizophrenia), and Bukowski. Even some of the essays of John Holmes (not the porn star, but the southern beat novelist who wrote GO, the onventional yet underrated 1950's tale that's still far more relevant to the lives of twenty-something Manhattanites than Friends ever could be) would probably qualify. Jack Black's You Can't Win an others

Why is it that recent attempts to write in this genre seem so affected? Are they spoiled by trying to live up to a standard set by their predecessors? I'm thinking of Nersesian's The Fuck Up and Frey's A Million Little Pieces (a mostly convincing journey through rehab). Frey's doesn't reek of pretense and hidden literary ambition so much as other overrated novels like Dave Eggers' Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius, which might have better been titled "Fuck Me Because I'm Such a Sensitive Guy Who Tragically Had to Take Care of His Younger Brother like a Stray Dog and So Had to Grow Up Faster Than Most Young Suburanites"), but you get the feeling that he's still holding onto certain delushions of old-Grandadeur.

I thought I'd just about exhausted the genre when I came across Fred Exley's A Fan's Notes. It was like discovering a great band years after the lead singer commits suicide and wondering why no one told you to check them out before.

Notes is the first (and best) of a trilogy, and easily stands alone. (I've also read Pages from a Cold Island, his second installment. It a disappointing recollection of how he stalked his literary hero, Edmund Wilson, in upstate New York. I haven't touched Last Notes From Home, his third installment, or Jonathan Yardley's bio of Exley, The Misfit, which is supposed to be good).

More than the Great Gatsby, A Fan's Notes is a classic tale of American failure and disappointment, the observations of a man forced by alcohol and depression and bouts of insanity (and forced hospitalization) to be a spectator not just of sports, but of life and others who manage to succeed in it. It is one of the most honest and tales of alcoholic failure that you'll read.

Exley never seems to be a caricature in his own novel, unlike Portnoy or, even more so, the aimless wastrels that you find in so many of P.J. Donleavey's novels (e.g. in his hilarious masterpiece, The Ginger Man). And at times the book reminds you of something of your own life, making it all the more engrossing (and potentially frightening):

"Next I read the book reviews. I read them with nostalgia and remorse. There was a period when I had lived on book reviews, when I had basked and drawn sustenance from what I deemed the light of their intelligence, the beneficence of their charm. But something had gone sour. Over the years I had read too much, in dim-lighted railway stations, lying on the davenports of strangers' houses, in the bleak and dismal wards of insane asylums. That reading had forced the charm to relinquish itself. Now I found that reviews were not only bland but scarcely, if ever, relevant; and that all books, whether works of imagination or the blatant frauds of literary whores, were approached by the reviewer with the same crushing sobriety. I wanted the reviewer to be fair, kind, and unny. I wanted to be made to laugh. I had not better luck that Sunday than on any other." (p. 16).

Exley' rambling style reminded me of the desultory days when I used to sit in Harvard Square and talk with every homeless stewbum and mental outpatient that I could corner for a cup of coffee (sometimes I bought; other times it was necessary to let them buy, to allow them to demonstrate they didn't want anything from me). Out of college with a liberal arts degree, somehow I was convinced I could learn more there on the street than within the wall of Ivy League institutions, with their rigid syllabi etc. (my parapathetic indulgences in poetry and eclectic reading of Joyce, Mailer, Miller, Plath, Sexton, Vonnegut, Heller, Pynchon, etc. bolstering this pseudo-philosophy and lifestyle).

I remember spending many days under the broken schizzors of the Harvard Square clock, reading and jabbering with newfound friends. It was easy to be convinced that, deracinated from the pressures of a career-track, you could somehow understand that if everything is an illusion (as the Buddhists say and LSD can reveal), then we're all failures -- especially those who succeed by our society's terms, though they don't know it, because they are the most afraid to let go of our collective illusions, living their lives in the rigid comfort of workaholic schedules -- yes, our "best and brightest" would rarely climb the mountains of mental mania that allowed you to look down in exhilaration and lonely clarity upon the Empire's foolish rules -- no better place to see this from than from Harvard Square, where other brilliant outcasts could be found -- totally ignored by the prim traditionalists and disciplined young MBAs and law students who would soon be off to Wall Street and the State Department (to eventually start another war). You could sit there for days with the wicked geniuses who had long ago chosen to apply their minds to chess rather than nuclear game theory, the scruffy alcoholic blues guitarist Jake who had to drink just to keep his hand from shaking out of control, the Wookie, Albert Fine (the man who introduced me to Proust, an expert on Gustav Mahler and John Cage, who had one day walked out of Manhattan, sleeping in roadside ditches all the way to Maine) and ... And, if you ran out of company, there were plenty of libraries and bookstores within a close distance that you could wander off to, including the Grolier, there on Plympton, the only poetry store in the country. But I digress.

Exley was the son of a father he didn't know well (dead at 40), except as a legendary football player: "Once, when I was very small, I actually saw my father play football; but like the propagators of his legend I remember nothing about the game save that at one point in it an opposing player, whose cleats had been removed to expose the sharp steep screws that held them (a customary bit of nastiness among the old-timers), stepped on my father's hand, tearing it rather badly.It was a nasty, jagged tear; it bled profusely, a heavy, brilliant, crimson blood; and the trainer no sooner began pouring iodine into it than my father let out a high, fierce, almost girlish howl, one that representing, as he did to me, the epitome of strength and courage immediately induced in me the urge to scream in terror. But then, almost as suddenly, the substitutes on the bench, the crowd behind them, and even the trainer who was ministering to the wound were uproarious with glee, were bellowing and guffawing, slapping their thighs and pounding each other's backs, and I saw that my father was parodying how a lesser man might react to iodine. Suspended between tears and laughter, I stood there listening to the gleeful homage of the crowd; then I, too, began to laugh, hysterically, wildly, until my father looked up at me, surprised and not a little upset, recognizing what had transpired. It was the first time the crowd had come between my father and me, and I became aware that other people understood in him qualities I did not -- a knowledge that gave them certain claims on him. It is a terrifying thing to have a wedge driven into one's narrow circle of love."

"Other men might inherit from their fathers a head for figures, a gold pocket watch all encrusted with the oxidized green of age, or an eternally astonished expression; from mine I acquired this need to have my name whispered in reverential tones. There were, that summer n New York, other things I longed for. I wanted the wealth and the power that fame would bring. I told myself I would one day write The Big Book; but I can understand now that I never believed I would." Instead, he is haunted by the success of college classmates like Frank Gifford, whose denial at being forced to retire (after a tackle-induced concussion) rather than decide for his own reasons a perfect mirror to Exley's own soused solipsism (or so he sees it): "On reading his exasperating remark, I immediately rose, went out and bought a copy of every New York newspaper, returned, and read their accounts with equal diligence. Searching for the slightest nuance, I wanted to see if any of the reporters had greeted his remark with, if not outright laughter, a splattering of levity. I understood perfectly. With a magnanimous gravity not unlie that of the reporters, people were at this time meeting my protestations that I could quit drinking any time I chose. Thus it was tat at the end, or at what Gifford and I must have believed would be the end for him, it gave me some consolation that we were both addicted to something -- he to football and I to liquor -- capable of destroying us, if not actually, in humiliation and loss of pride."

Exley calls himself a "paltry poet." Hardly. Of course, when the anti-novel is your genre, it's hard to beat the first volume. I've heard that the third installment comes back strong from the second. When I get to it, I look forward to telling you if that's so.